Arts & Entertainment
3 min

How a psychic experience and a dead writer inspired Daniel MacIvor’s new play

Who Killed Spalding Gray? is a departure from MacIvor’s usual style

Daniel MacIvor’s new play, Who Killed Spalding Gray? is a semi-autobiographical work inspired from a previous relationship and the death of New York artist Spalding Gray. Credit: Courtesy Guntar Kravis

In the fall of 2003, Daniel MacIvor was diagnosed with a strange condition. But the revelation of his affliction didn’t come from a qualified professional. It came from his ex-boyfriend.

“I can be a bit of an ass when someone tells me there’s something wrong with me,” the celebrated theatre artist says. “I’m fine at diagnosing myself but I don’t like being told. It’s like that Winston Churchill quote, ‘I’m always ready to learn but I don’t like being taught’.”

The diagnosis catalyzed a peculiar journey that ultimately led to his latest solo show, Who Killed Spalding Gray? The show has toured Ottawa, Calgary and Halifax, as well had as a brief stint at Toronto’s 2015 Luminato Festival.  

So what was this mysterious illness? 

The story begins a year earlier when MacIvor was back in his home province of Nova Scotia directing his film, Wilby Wonderful.

During shooting, he struck up a brief affair with a gentleman whom he later learned had been trying to get in touch for some time. Deeply superstitious and slightly stalker-ish, the man was fixated on MacIvor.

He’d seen MacIvor’s photo on the back of the book version of his play, House, years earlier and concluded the pair had a “deep psychic connection.”

The romance fizzled within a few months. But shortly after the split, he contacted MacIvor with a warning. 

The ex was a regular client of a semi-famous psychic. They’d been discussing the failed relationship and she told him MacIvor was in grave danger. Apparently he had a mysterious “entity” attached to him that needed to be removed.

“Although I’m very open to this world of thinking, I was annoyed at being told I was in danger,” MacIvor says. 

“Or perhaps I was annoyed that they were discussing me. I told him to give me her number and I’d talk to her myself. But when I called, things really shifted. She told me things that there was no way she could have known — things even my ex didn’t know.”

This conversation prompted a journey to California and a series of psychic therapy sessions detailed in his latest show. But that’s only part of the story. 

The other half relates to the play’s namesake, Spalding Gray, the celebrated New York artist also famous for solo shows. 

Gray suffered a lengthy battle with depression. On March 7, 2004, Gray’s body was pulled from the East River. Authorities believe he’d jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.

The exact date of his death is unknown, but he was reported missing on Jan 11, the same weekend MacIvor’s “entity” was being psychically removed, more than 4,000 kilometres away. 

In keeping with his often-metaphysical outlook, MacIvor was sure the timing was no coincidence. The show centres on uncovering the connection between these two events.

Taking Gray as a theatrical subject had a particular resonance. Like many creators of solo semi-autobiographical works, MacIvor has endured frequent comparisons to him. But it wasn’t until he began work on this show that he understood why.

“Spalding and I have many of the same obsessions so there’s a tone we share in terms of where the stuff comes from,” MacIvor says. “I don’t really ‘do’ Spalding in the show. But I do take on his style of storytelling for parts.”

“There’s a real vulnerability here for me so I take refuge in an invented tale, which is where I always hide my autobiography in the work. It’s like I toy with facing the comparison but then spend most of the show running away from it.”

Who Killed Spalding Gray? is a return to form of sorts for MacIvor. In 2006, he announced he was quitting solos to focus on multi-character works for other actors. 

He felt that spending nine months a year alone on stage, talking to a group of people he couldn’t see, was causing him to disconnect from the real world. At the same time, he left Toronto for Halifax and finally tied the knot with a man he was convinced was “the one.” 

But in 2011, after a messy divorce, he was left questioning everything. 

The answer, it turned out, was another solo. In 2012, MacIvor returned to the stage with This Is What Happens Next, a nearly autobiographical account of his failed relationship.

But Spalding is also a kind of departure. While the show dispenses with his trademark rapid-fire delivery, watching him perform now, it seems as if the confidence gained from more than two decades treading the boards has finally allowed him to relax on stage. 

So has the ex who started him on this journey seen the show yet?

“No. But I think he’ll see it in Toronto this time,” MacIvor says. “I should probably call him.”